I'm reading a book which has the following quote

I have notions of reading the whole of Corpus Juris and Pandects in no time at all; but these are getting dim as the Cambridge scheme has been howked up from its repose in the region of abortions, and is as far forward as an inspection of the Cambridge Calendar and a communication with Cantabs

The Life of James Clerk Maxwell by Campbell & Garnet, pub. Macmillan London, 1882

What does it mean here by howked up?

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    You need to tell us which book the quotation comes from Jan 3 at 8:42

2 Answers 2


The sentence, as I checked, is taken from a biography of the Scottish physicist James Maxwell. Apparently, the writer is Scottish, too.

The phrasal verb howked up is in fact the dialectical version of the usual phrase hawked up.

Merriam-Webster gives this for howk:

dialectal, British : to hollow out: EXCAVATE, DIG —often used with a preposition

lobsters had got at it … and howked pieces out of it —E. F. Benson

It is apparent that howked up is used figuratively in the sentence.

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    Possibly, in this context, howked up (hawked up) is used in the unpleasant meaning of to spit phlegm. Jan 3 at 11:07
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    Or 'dug up from...'. Jan 3 at 11:50
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    @KateBunting Yes, given the definition in M-W I can't see what it has to do with hawking and spitting. The metaphor of howking up an old abandoned scheme from the depths is perfectly clear to me. It particularly suggests the removal of a lot of overburden.
    – BoldBen
    Jan 4 at 9:47

The Scottish or north English word verb howk (sometimes houk) is well established from the late middle ages through to the present, when it is still widely used and understood here in Scotland. In general it means to dig up, to pull up, to extract.

Here is one typical definition (from a much longer account):

Dictionary of the Scots Language
Howk: verb
To dig, delve the soil,
to make a trench or the like in the earth,
to uproot or remove from the ground by digging.
houket: disinterred, dug up.
fig. and humorously, to howk the nose, to pick the nose. Examples:
"The great skaith {damage} done by swine by houcking and working up the common grass".
*"At Midnight Hours, o'er the Kirk-yards *{churchyards}*she raves, And howks unchristen'd We'ans *{children} out of their Graves".

And here is a contemporary example:

The Herald
"Our local schools are due to break up for their fortnight-long, half-term holidays, or "October break", this weekend. When I was a youngster that break was called the "tattie howking holidays" as that was when farmers hired schoolchildren to help gather in the potato harvest."

A glance at Wiktionary is interesting and convincing:

This entry reveals that howk is related to Middle English and Middle Low German holken, to hollow out, and hence is related to English words hulk and hollow

In the context of your quotation, the subject and author are Scots and the word is clearly used in the same way as we would say something like "... The Cambridge scheme has been dug up / extracted/ brought from its repository ...".

In passing, I note that there is no reason whatsoever to imagine in a serious article that this particular usage is a figurative or humorous (as in the Scots Dictionary example above) allusion to the coughing up of phlegm or the picking of the nose.

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